Some people don’t drink wine. I know! But it’s true. And those that don’t usually have very good reasons for not. But for those who do, Italy is a great place to live. According to Italianmade.com, Italy produces and exports more wine than any other country, and according to Patrick McGovern, an expert on ancient beverages, wine may well have been made as long ago as the Neolithic age (8,000 – 4,000 BC)(how much would a 3,000 year old wineskin of Neanderolo fetch at auction, do you think??) Italians have been making wine for a very, very long time, and they’re very, very good at it.
Mountainous Liguria does not have a vine-friendly geography, and most wines here are made by families for home consumption, though there’s some lively production down in the Cinque Terre. But our neighbor to the north, Piemonte, though ranked only 6th of Italy’s regions in production, has more DOC zones than any other region. Delicious wines come from Piemonte, and many of them make their way to Ligurian tables, as do Tuscan wines. Piemonte vines include barbera, dolcetto, grignolino, freisa, cortese and nebbiolo (from which come Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara wines). (All these fascinating details come from the italianmade site.)
Here’s a quick primer on the four categories of Italian wine:
Vino da Tavola, or table wine, is just that. It’s usually pretty undistinguished, but often pleasantly drinkable. It comes from who knows where and generally comes in one of two colors – red or white, and one of two states – fizzy or still.
Vino a Indicazion Geografica (IGT) means that the wine is from a particular geographical area. Other than that, see above.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) means, again, that the wine is from a particular geographical area, but there are stringent guidelines relating to its production and naming.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG or DOC/G) means the same as DOC, except that the rules for production are even more rigid, the amount produced is limited, and the wine must be tasted and approved by a committee – how can one serve on that committee, I’d like to know!
You might think that with so much wine washing around the country the inhabitants would be staggering about in a constant state of inebriation – not so! Of course Italy has, like most other countries, a certain amount of alcoholism and other diseases and problems related to over-consumption. But in general Italians are relatively careful drinkers, and they drink far and away more wine than beer or spirits (The World Health Organization reported in 2002 that almost 16% of Italians abstain from drinking completely, and the amount of alcohol consumed has been decreasing steadily since the 1960’s).
So, just how much do Italians drink? Ha. The answer might surprise you (it did me). WHO statistics from 2003, the most recent I could find, show a per capita (over 15 years old) alcohol consumption of 8.0 liters a year, which doesn’t seem so much to someone who can put away half a liter with dinner. The U.S. figure is 8.6 liters. Who drinks the most? Ugandans! 17.6 liters, and who could blame them? Who drinks the least (and perhaps fibs a little)? Yemen and the United Arab Emirates at 0.0. Germans drink 12.0 liters and Irish 13.7 liters per year.
But enough facts and figures. The whole point of this exercise was to talk about the beauties of Italian wines, from the residue-laden bottles produced at home and lovingly stored for years in dusty cantinas, to the agri-produced gleaming bottles that are exported and sold for lots of money.
You can buy your wine many places (including often at the producing vinyards themselves) – at a specialty shop, where you will find your DOC and DOCG wines along with the others; at the super market where you never know exactly what you will find; or, as we like to do, at the ‘filling station’, a store where you can buy wine in bulk and carry it away in your own container. This picture was taken at a new cantina in Santa Margherita Ligure, and the young lady is filling a sample bottle for me with Riesling. They have several other wines available as well. Big Market in Rapallo (Corso Mameli) also sells vino sfuso, that is wine in bulk.
How much will you pay for your wine? That all depends, of course. Oddly, price is not always tied to quality. It is possible to get some very decent wines at a reasonable cost. In the specialty shops you are likely to pay E 4 and up, way up, for a bottle; at the super market you can buy beginning at about E 2; vino sfuso? At the Santa Margherita Cantina I paid E 1.70 a liter for that Riesling – pretty reasonable, I think.
Wine is central to Italian culture and eating. Best of all, it is delicious, it can make you feel delightfully giddy, and if you ask your doctor, he may well recommend one glass of red a day because of all the good flavonoids and other antioxidants contained therein.